LANSING - The Republican-led state Senate approved legislation Thursday that could block a group's effort to ban wolf hunting in Michigan and make hunting and fishing rights a part of the state constitution.
Legislation passed on a 25 to 11 party line vote Thursday would empower the Natural Resources Commission to decide which types of wildlife could be hunted. If signed into law, the measure effectively renders meaningless a potential statewide vote next year on overturning the Legislature's designation of wolves as a game species.
Lawmakers say wolf hunting is necessary to ensure the safety of citizens and livestock in rural areas where the wolf population is larger. But opponents say the measure is an attempt by lawmakers to suppress the voice of the people.
Currently, only the Legislature has the power to designate a game species, but under the proposal passed Thursday, the seven-member regulatory panel appointed by the governor would also have that power. The legislation originally included a $1 million appropriation, which means under Michigan law that it can't be subject to referendum on the ballot. That language was removed from the bill Thursday.
Lawmakers approved the measure designating wolves as a game species last year. Earlier this month, opponents gathered the more than 240,000 signatures necessary to request a statewide vote on whether the animals should be hunted. If a certain number of the signatures are considered valid, wolf hunting would be suspended until a vote is held in 2014.
But if the bill passed by the Senate Thursday - which now heads to the House - is signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, even if voters strike down wolf hunting in 2014, the NRC could approve wolf hunting anyway.
Jill Fritz, the director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the group backing the proposed referendum, told the more than 100 opponents protesting the bill on the steps of the Capitol Tuesday that the measure is an "extreme power grab by politicians or a deliberate attempt to subvert democracy and silence the voice of Michigan voters."
Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, who is sponsoring the measure, said in Ironwood, an Upper Peninsula city in his district, parents are worried to let their children outside because of the wolves.
Lawmakers say the Natural Resources Commission is better apt at determining wildlife management policies - using scientific data, like changes in the wolf population - than the Legislature.
Last month, the commission recommended scheduling a two-month season this fall during which hunters could kill a maximum of 43 wolves. The hunt would be held in three zones where Department of Natural Resources officials say they've received a high number of complaints and other control methods have failed.
Snyder on Tuesday took no position on the legislation, saying it is up to lawmakers to set their agenda.
"That's part of their prerogative of coming up with what they think is the best way to handle issues," he told reporters. "I think the general concept of saying that we should do scientifically based hunting is a good concept."
Michigan Tech University biologist John Vucetich, a wolf and moose specialist, said while scientific data is important for determining wildlife management policies, another essential element is the opinion of the people.
"Science is not particularly suited to tell us what is a good and right thing and that's where democracy plays such an important role," he said. "This bill is intended to thwart a democratic process that is a very important part of wildlife management."
The Senate also approved a measure Thursday that would add a proposal to the 2014 ballot that would enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state's constitution.
Republican Sen. Dave Hildebrand of Lowell, who is sponsoring the legislation, said he has wanted to add such language to the state's constitution for a while, but acknowledged that the referendum to ban wolf hunting "may have given it more energy this time around."
Hildebrand said hunting would still be held to the rules and regulations laid out by the state, but the constitutional amendment, would ensure that hunting is "protected for years to come."